Sermon for 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2021
Proverbs 31:10-31 Psalms 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37
On Wednesday of this week, I was coming home for lunch and was stopping completely at the stop sign on City Blvd. and Baltimore. I was aware of a sliding kind of noise and looked in my rearview mirror to see a truck careening my way. I flashed back to being rear-ended on the expressway in Augusta. I remembered the insurance hassles and the months of chiropractic care. I grimaced at the impending hit. Then I thought, I can do something. The other two cars at the intersection were stopped, so I floored it through the intersection. The truck, not slowing down, veered off toward the left and kept on going down Baltimore. I went about 100 feet, then pulled over to the side of the road to catch my breath and say a prayer. I thought “words are good, but sometimes we need to act.” I think the guy not having any brakes was surprised as much as I was. Sometimes, we must understand our community – its strengths and weaknesses, and we must understand ourselves.
Jesus knew that a strong community enhances the lives of its members. The community is a place of identity, where people have a sense of belonging because they are known and recognized. The community provides protection and support. It shapes values and norms. But there are risks in a strong community. The expectations and demands of society may impact the freedom and creativity of a person. The past ways may not be suitable for the challenges of the future. Jesus saw it developing in his disciples - a strong community may become so focused on itself, may turn within, that it loses the capacity to relate to those outside.
There is a constant tension between being inclusive and being exclusive, with serious questions to be faced. How far should a community go in relating to other people who are different, and how far should it go in excluding those who have different standards and values and customs? How does a community keep its identity if it recognizes the validity of differing ways and structures of other communities? How do people in a community fellowship with others without losing their distinctiveness?
This concern about inclusiveness and exclusiveness is particularly intense for the church. For the church community is bound together not just by common interest or mutual enjoyment, but by convictions about the fundamental issues of human existence: what we believe in most deeply, what gives value and meaning to our lives, under what obligations we live, how we define and live the good life, and ultimately who we are.
I have a Word Search app on my phone that I enjoy. It has different categories and words that go with that category. Earlier this week, I encountered “containers” as a category. As I worked through it, I ran into words heart and mind. I had easily understood, words like “boxes, crates, vessels”, but heart and mind. I started to think of social media and how easy it is to fill our minds with things not from God. Those ideas, doubts, and misperceptions cloud our minds so the truth slips farther away. The incidents of hate and harm disquiet our hearts. Where is God in that? We may ask. God is always there on the side of the underdog. It is the meek and voiceless that God sees above all else. What’s in your heart? What’s on your mind? “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We remember that this text follows Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s lack of understanding who the true messiah is and what he is called to do. The disciples are talking on the road about who is the greatest. Jesus is aware of their conversation and brings it into the light. The real surprise comes when Jesus takes a small child and tells the disciples that in receiving the child they receive him – and through him they receive “the one who sent me.” When we consider our domestication of Jesus – our attempts to tame Jesus and make him like us – this seems to be a cute story about Jesus and the little children. Jesus is telling them and us that if they want to live in the way of the one who gives his life for others, they will identify with the children and welcome them, for they are in need of love and protection.
When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus exposes their argument and their misunderstanding by asking them what they were discussing on the way. There is only embarrassed silence in their response. In this reading, they are jockeying for position to be honored alongside their powerful liberator Messiah. Jesus walks ahead of them in silence on his way to his sacramental death while his struggling disciples push and shove, trying to establish the order of procession after him.
This dispute opens the door for Jesus’ teaching on selfless service. Mark signifies its importance as Jesus calls the Twelve to sit and listen. When he first spoke of suffering, he told them that the one who tries to save his or her life, will lose it, but the one who loses his or her life for his sake will save it. Now, he presents them with another paradox: The one who wants to be first must become last of all and servant of all. The disciples still have serious visions of grandeur and do not fantasize about becoming servants, who are at everybody’s beck and call. They suffer from puffed-up ambition that will never be ready to take up a cross and follow a suffering servant Messiah.
To reinforce the lesson, Jesus places a little child in front of them and announces: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcome me.” Jesus doesn’t set up the child as a model to be imitated, for his culture had no romanticized ideas about children. They were not regarded as especially obedient, trusting, simple, innocent, pure, unself-conscious, or humble. The point of comparison is the insignificance of the child in their culture. The child has no power, no status, and few rights. A child is dependent, vulnerable, entirely subject to the authority of the father; yet Jesus chooses this child to represent those who are poor and lowly. If one wants to be great, one should shower attention on those who are regarded as insignificant, as Jesus himself has done. Jesus requires his “great” disciples to show humble service for the humble – to be a servant.
Jesus follows this up with another paradox: When his followers serve those without any status, they receive Jesus and the One who sent him. The greatest thing they can do is serve those who are forgotten and regarded as insignificant – those who have no influence, no titles, no priority, no way of paying them back, and no importance except to God. Realizing that one is as small and slight as a child before God brings repentance to our hearts.
In understanding who we are and whose we are, it always seems to come down to who is in and who is out. How do we keep following Jesus and protect the integrity of our community without isolating ourselves from others? How can a community keep its own identity and still be open to those outside? There is no simple answer to that question, but every community needs to be aware of where to draw the line between insider and outsider, and of the impact of that decision – on those within and those without. The words of Jesus to his disciples reminds us to be sensitive to the issues involved, and his words push us to run some risk in relating to those who are not part of our community – to welcome the stranger. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
So, the disciples were distracted by all that had happened up to this point and who had done the most to help the cause. Don’t we get that way sometimes? Making a mental note of who showed up for church, or to help with a special project like New to You or Sacks for Saturday. Sometimes, we may think that we have helped with one of these and are tired and just want to sit out working on the Bazaar or the next thing. Someone else can do it. It is in our human nature to want recognition in all that we do. I realize I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I guess I count on people getting blessed by their efforts. But we all want to hear that we are valued, that we count, and that people are aware of us. But in the eyes of God, we are not measured by our efforts but by our hearts. We are valued because of the intentions of our hearts – hearts filled with love to serve others.
Preserving the power of his own group was not a priority for Jesus. If good was being done by others, and for others, their actions needed to be affirmed. Jesus went on to say to the disciples that as they ministered to outsiders, they would be blessed as well as blessing those they helped: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The risks are real for us if our failures of love, our distortions of the way of Christ, our too narrow understandings of the truth, our quickness to pronounce judgment causes others to move off the path to God. To follow Jesus, we are to humble ourselves, so there is less of us and more of God within us. We are to welcome the stranger, give cold water to those who thirst, listen to the hearts of others, care about strangers and work to make them friends. We have been knit together into the family of God. We, as the disciples, are called to live into the ministry of hospitality – we are to sign up, show up, speak up and eat up as we gather as the family of God. Amen.